Frequently Asked Questions
Have a question related to public records? Submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org and you will receive an answer via email. Here are some FAQs:
Q. If statutory exemptions exist, must records custodians or chairmen of public councils, commissions, committees and boards withhold a document or close a meeting to the public?
A. No. Exemptions are not mandatory. They are to be narrowly construed to favor citizen access. There is no penalty for releasing public documents or opening public meetings that an exemption could have barred. There are, however, statutes outside the Public Disclosure Act that expressly prohibit disclosure of certain records. These usually refer to a very specific type of record. Court records, for example, are controlled by rules of the court and the judges seated on the courts.
Q. May a local government enact an ordinance that includes requirements more or less restrictive than those in state laws provide?
A. Local ordinances that conflict with state public disclosure and open meetings laws are void.
Q. What is a “public record”?
A. A record is defined in broad terms of documents and information in government’s possession. The concept of a public record covers “all records, document, tape, or other information stored or preserved in any medium” — including on a computer — “of or belonging to” a government agency.
Q. Can a person get public information by phone or by fax?
A. Law does not provide for such access, but governmental agencies often provide it to be helpful.
Q. What does it cost to get a copy of a public record?
A. A public agency may charge “a reasonable fee” for providing a copy of a record. Costs vary. Sometimes there is no charge at all. Two rules of thumb: (1) If the charge is high enough to discourage you from getting the record, the charge probably is not “reasonable.” (2) State law provides charges of 15 cents a page for copies. Visit the In-State Survey Responses page for more information.
Q. How can a person sue a public agency for violation of these laws?
A. Some points to bear in mind:
- 1. The goal should be to assure access, not to file and win a lawsuit. Talk with the people involved about the presumption of openness in Washington laws. Try to work things out short of litigation.
- 2. Talk with the attorney for the public agency to see if counsel thinks the law has been followed.
- 3. Document your efforts to get a record or attend a meeting where access is denied.
- 4. Seek the advice of an attorney not associated with the public agency involved. Often an attorney can briefly advise you at little or no charge.
- 5. If you file suit and are successful, the laws provide that you may recover reasonable attorney’s fees and in some cases monetary penalties.
Visit the MRSC pages on Public Records Act for more information.